Generator Maintenance on a Budget: How to Downsize the Smart Way

We once received a call from a company that had just purchased a commercial building with a large 1500KW generator in the basement. The generator seemed to be working fine during some initial tests, but then suddenly shut off. They couldn’t figure out why.

We sent out a technician, and when he opened the doors to the generator, he found that the engine had literally exploded. Piston parts had blown through the engine wall, and oil was everywhere.

It turns out that the previous owners had gone bankrupt, and the generator had been sitting idle for years. With no maintenance, critical parts had deteriorated to the point that it completely failed when it was turned back on.

Fortunately, the building was empty, and the condition of the generator was discovered during a test. But imagine if that had happened in an occupied building, during a power outage?

While it may not always seem like it, maintenance services serve a vital purpose. They keep assets like cars, houses, and generators in good condition, so they work when we need them to, and we can avoid the much larger cost of having to replace them prematurely.

Many companies with tight budgets look at their generator maintenance plans as one easy place to cut expenses, but the wrong approach to these cuts can quickly cost the company far more than it ever saved. Here’s the right way to downsize your maintenance budget.

Understand That You’re Taking a Risk

The first step to downsizing your maintenance budget is to ask yourself, “Can our business afford risking that our backup power system will malfunction during an outage?”

If the answer is “yes,” then you can move forward with the suggestions provided in the rest of this article. If the answer is “no,” then you should find other places to cut your budget. The cost of a generator malfunction for some businesses—in dollars and even human life—is just too high to be worth any additional risk.

Different businesses have generators for different reasons. Some, like hospitals, are legally required to have them because of the implications for human life and safety if they lose power.

Others, like tech companies or data centers, may be required to have them simply because the nature of their business means it would be too costly to lose power.

Still other businesses decide to have them simply because they live somewhere with an unreliable power supply (like the Bay Area) and want to minimize disruptions to their operations.

Whatever your business’s reasons for getting one, your commercial generator is an asset that you’ve invested time and money in so that it can protect your business against unplanned outages. Cutting maintenance on any part of it increases the risk that it won’t work when you need it to.

Depending on the reasons your business has a backup generator in the first place, you may at some point decide that it’s worth taking some additional risk in order to lower your maintenance costs. But make no mistake—you are taking a risk. No matter how thoughtfully you approach the process of slimming down your maintenance contract, every service you remove or postpone increases the risk that something could go wrong with your backup power system when you need it most.

Consult With Your Generator Service Provider

If you’ve decided to move forward with shrinking your maintenance budget, you might feel hesitant about discussing it with your generator service provider. After all, this means less business for them, and they’ll only try to talk you out of making any changes. Better to simply inform them of your decision, right?

Not quite.

The reality is that as a business, your generator service provider understands what it’s like to have to cut expenses. Not only that, but you can be sure you’re not the first client of theirs who has felt the need to slim down their maintenance contract.

Cutting your maintenance plan will always come with some risk, but your service provider is in the best position to help you downsize your maintenance plan in a way that minimizes the risk to your business.

Every generator system is different, with different brands, parts, specifications, and levels of wear and tear. Because they are familiar with your specific system, your service company will know what maintenance you can probably forgo for a while and what would be foolish to get rid of.

If you’re thinking about cutting your maintenance contract, talk with your service provider first. Explain your situation, and ask them to work with you to create something that meets your budgetary needs while still providing an acceptable level of service for your backup power system.

At Electro-Motion, we’re always ready to work with clients who are operating under budget constraints, and we much prefer that they let us be part of the process. It allows us to create a maintenance plan that minimizes the risks to their business while still meeting their financial needs.

How Building Occupancy Affects Generator Maintenance

Building occupancy is one of the primary factors that will determine how you should approach making changes to your generator maintenance plan.

If a building is going to be empty, that doesn’t automatically mean that the simplest (or cheapest) approach is to stop all maintenance. You’ll first need to answer a few questions, such as:

  • How long is the building going to be unoccupied?
  • When was maintenance last performed on the generator?
  • Will the building stay operational, or is it going to be completely shut down?

The answers to these questions will help your service provider develop a plan that will preserve your generator for future use.

For example, if the building is going to be shut down for more than 12 months, the recommended approach is usually to decommission the generator set. If the building is going to be shut down for less time than that, it’s usually more efficient to do some basic maintenance that keeps the generator ready for full use when occupancy resumes or the generator is moved to a new location.

If you’re looking to cut back on generator maintenance in a building that is occupied and in use, things get a little tricker. You have to pick the services you can postpone that will result in the least risk of your system malfunctioning.

Which Generator Maintenance Services Can You Safely Cut Back On?

Shrinking your maintenance plan is never risk free, so the goal is always to minimize risk. A reduced maintenance plan that will minimize risk for your business may be different from a maintenance plan for a different company with different equipment and needs. This is part of why it’s so important to consult with your generator service provider when making changes to your plan.

In general, however, there are a few types of services that are usually good places to start when looking for lower-risk ways to cut back on your maintenance plan. In our experience, cutting back on these three services can reduce a maintenance contract by up to 50%.

1. Cooling system service

Cooling system involves a full replacement of all the components of your generator’s cooling system. The National Fire Protection Association’s 110 standard (NFPA 110), the standard governing generator maintenance, recommends doing this once every three years, although depending on your generator you may be able to postpone it a year or two.

You can learn more about commercial generator cooling system service here.

2. Valve adjustments

A valve adjustment involves tightening engine valves that tend to get loose over time, resulting in reduced efficiency and power in your generator. NFPA 110 recommends doing a valve adjustment every three to five years.

You can learn more about commercial generator valve adjustments here.

3. Automatic transfer switch maintenance

The automatic transfer switch (ATS) is a critical electrical component that switches your building’s electrical load from the grid over to your generator when an outage happens. Typically, full ATS maintenance involves completely disassembling the unit, inspecting it, cleaning it, and replacing parts where necessary.

In certain cases, however, you can postpone full ATS maintenance in favor of a thermal scan that tests the ATS for potential issues without requiring a full disassembly.

You can learn more about commercial generator ATS maintenance here.

What Generator Maintenance Services Are Must-Haves?

While there are some maintenance services that allow for flexibility, there are others that you simply can’t do without—even if you are making cuts. Here are a few.

1. Annual maintenance

The most important maintenance visit every year, the annual maintenance is required by local authorities (usually your fire marshall) and includes a much more comprehensive inspection than is typically performed during the monthly or quarterly maintenance visits.

You can learn more about commercial generator annual maintenance here.

2. Annual load bank testing

The annual load bank test is a test that verifies the ability of your generator to operate under a full load for an extended period of time, typically two hours. It’s required by your local authority and verified during inspections. It’s also one of the best ways to identify issues with your generator system that may have been missed otherwise.

You can learn more about annual load bank testing for commercial generators here.

3. Battery replacement

This is a big one. A bad battery is the #1 reason generators don’t start when you need them to. Batteries need to be replaced every two to three years, depending on their size. Replacing your battery at the right intervals is the cheapest way to ensure your generator works when there’s an outage. If you’re making cuts to your maintenance plan, make sure you keep battery replacements on the list.

You can learn more about commercial generator battery replacements here.

Get Creative

The last tip to reducing a commercial generator maintenance budget intelligently is to be creative. By keeping risk reduction a priority and working with your service provider, you can often find unique solutions to your budget constraints that minimize the impact of changes to the health of your backup power system.

For example, at Electro-Motion, we’ve worked with clients to train their in-house maintenance people to perform some of the more routine weekly and monthly maintenance tasks, allowing them to save money on their maintenance contract without compromising the integrity of their backup power system.

We Can Help

At Electo-Motion, we have over 50 years of experience designing custom maintenance plans for any backup power system, on just about any budget. We’ve worked with some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley, the US government, and even NATO, as well as hundreds of smaller businesses.

If you’re in the Bay Area and need a service provider for your commercial generator, we’d love to help! All our maintenance is performed by EGSA-certified technicians with a minimum of 100 hours of safety and skills training per year, and we are available 24/7, with a maximum two-hour response time for emergencies.

Schedule a consultation with us today.

 

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